A taste of the good life
MINTURN – For most of his career, chef Rick Kangas has cooked for the rich and famous. At Grouse Mountain Grill in Beaver Creek, in private kitchens and while running his own restaurant for second-homeowners in Cordillera, Kangas’ food has been enjoyed by those who could afford it.Now you can find him tucked away in a tiny kitchen in Minturn, preparing meals with a budget of $1 per person. He’s the new chef at the senior center, and for $2.50, people 60 and older taste a bit of the good life.”It’s always been about love of food and putting good food in front of people to make them happy,” Kangas said. “There’s a little love in every dish, and they can see that.”Kangas has won over the hardest of critics with his cooking, and we’re not talking about the James Beard folks here (though Kangas has won them over, too.) Take Polly Jeffries, for example, a cantankerous young lady in her 90s who used to “comment” about every lunch served at the senior center. Since Kangas came aboard, she’s singing a different tune – but she’s still mad at the chef. Jeffries used to wrap up half her lunch on Wednesdays, put it in her purse and save it for Thursdays. Now the meals are so good, she finishes everything on her plate, leaving nothing for the following day.”You need to put a buckle and chain on him to see that he stays,” Jeffries said. “That’s my biggest worry now. I sure don’t want that guy to disappear. It’s just unbelievable. Every time, I think, it won’t be as good as his last meal, but it is.”
But cooking is only part of his job, Kangas said. First and foremost, it’s about creating a menu that will bring the seniors out of their homes.”It’s about getting them to socialize,” Kangas said. “Getting them out of the house to talk about what problems they might have.”So far, his food has worked. Since Kangas started, the center has had to add an extra table to accommodate all the new seniors coming in for lunch. They’ve also had to add extra volunteer support in the kitchen.”Rick is able to dirty every pot in the kitchen, in true fine cuisine fashion,” adult services manager Sherri Mintz said.The food may draw them in, but it’s the camaraderie that keeps the seniors coming back. Before lunch, Mintz and Pat Nolan, adult services therapist, plan activities, like aerobics, painting, even foot massages. And when yummy scents begin to waft in from the kitchen, the seniors settle into their respective seats. Men at one table, and women at another. “I never realized I would make so many good friends,” Maryanna Westort said, who some might recognize as the Saturday pastry lady at First Bank. “We have such a nice bunch. I don’t find any ugliness here. We all get along.”
Job perfect for KangasWhen Chef’s Corner closed this winter, Kangas was looking for a part-time job to supplement his income while he got his wholesale business up and running again. Kangas sells Rick’s Rubs, spice blends, all over the country, and he also makes potato chips and flavored tortilla chips, sold locally at Shop N Hops and Kitchen Collage in Edwards. He heard about the senior center job from Todd Rymer, head of culinary arts at Colorado Mountain College, but Rymer was wondering if Kangas knew anyone to do it. “It’s right up my alley. It’s American comfort food. It has to be healthy, but it’s still meat and potatoes,” Kangas said, who gained his penchant for hearty meals while growing up in Montana.Kangas learned to cook in fourth grade, over the phone with his mother. While the rest of his four siblings had to go to a baby sitter after school, Kangas, the oldest, was allowed to come home and prepare dinner. His mother would call in from work and talk him through a recipe.”That same year I began experimenting with food,” he said. “I put blue food coloring in the Campbell’s tomato soup, and none of my siblings would eat it. I got into trouble, because we were on a tight budget. It started my creativity, but I learned you have to make things look palatable.”
A focus on nutritionRules in the kitchen haven’t changed much for Kangas. From the fine dining world to cooking meals at the senior center, it’s still about quality, freshness and that same from-scratch principle. Only at the senior center, he has budget restrictions, and he has to make every meal nutritious.”Good nutrition is the basis for good health,” Mintz said. “It allows seniors to stay in their own home for longer, and it makes hospital stays shorter.”Kangas takes traditional comfort food and reduces the fat. Like for chicken enchiladas, instead of dipping the tortillas into fat, he rolls them in red chili to soften them up. For fried ice cream, he toasts the crunchy outside, instead of actually deep frying the coating. “Nutrition is common sense really,” Kangas said. “People don’t stop to think what they’re putting in their mouth. Fresh is always better.”Arts and Entertainment Editor Cassie Pence can be reached at 748-2938, or firstname.lastname@example.org.